The Woman Who Watches over the World: A Native Memoirby Linda K. Hogan
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The powerful story of one woman's family and the way in which tribal history informs her own past. "I sat down to write a book about pain and ended up writing about love," says award-winning Chickasaw poet and novelist Linda Hogan. In this book, she recounts her own difficult childhood as the daughter of an army sergeant, her love affair at age fifteen with an older man, the legacy of alcoholism, and the troubled history of the two daughters she adopted. She shows how historic and emotional pain are passed down through generations while revealing her own struggles with physical pain, and she blends personal history with stories of important Indian figures of the past such as Lozen, the woman who was the military strategist for Geronimo, and Ohiyesha, the Santee Sioux medical doctor who witnessed the massacre at Wounded Knee. Ultimately, Hogan sees herself and her people whole again and gives us an illuminating story of personal spiritual triumph.
- Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
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I REMEMBER THE first time I saw the clay woman. I was with Georgianna Sanchez. We were in a museum gift shop. The clay woman from San Martín, Mexico, was full and beautiful. Attached to earth, she flew over it. She wore a dress of stars. Her black hair flowed behind her, and on her clay feet were little black shoes. Beneath her, the earth was orange. It would have looked somewhat like a pumpkin if not for the dividing lines of countries, continents, and oceans. Her nose was large, her breasts heavy and pointed, her stomach attached to earth, just above North America. Her name was written on a tag, "The Bruja Who Watches Over the Earth." Bruja is the Spanish word for a woman healer, soothsayer, or sometimes a witch.
I LOVED THIS flying soothsayer who protected the lands beneath her. She was connected to them by her very body, the very same clay. Like nearly all first people, she was shaped from the planet to which she was connected.
me, then I returned home, anticipating the day The Woman Who Watches Over the World would appear.
off, the gray interior clay exposed beneath the paint. I glued them back on. Then she began to fall apart in other ways. Her nose broke. Soon one of her hands fell off. The woman who watches over the world was broken. Despite my efforts, she remained that way, fragmented and unhealed. At first I was disappointed, but then I thought, Yes, the woman who watches over us is as broken as the land, as hurt as the flesh people. She is a true representation of the world she flies above. Something between us and earth has broken. That is what the soothsayer says.
ONE DAY, A few years later, Georgianna and I sat together at the Pacific Ocean. There was a soft haze above the sea, the rich air smelling of salt and fish. There is power in the muscular strength of the sea. Yet, at times, there is nothing softer, and this was a soft day.
Native citizens of this continent, we sat beside the great movement of sea and talked. As we sat, I remembered reading once that the Papago, living far from the sea, take a yearly journey to the ocean for salt. They call ocean a power of high order, a mysterious being, and so we sat beside that element considered to be healing, and we talked, knowing its currents, like ours, are created by elements powerfully beyond us, the spin of earth, the pull of moon, the storms far away.
THAT DAY WE were at the thresholds of water, of language, and even of our own bodies. We talked about the healing we have each sought. Georgianna and I inhabited a similar territory, the world of physical pain, my own from a neuromuscular disease. Perhaps the ocean and our words could offer us hope. As humans have always done, we searched for meaning in illness, for an understanding. In the past, our infirmities might have been a taboo broken, a god offended, an intrusion of evil spirits, souls lost and stolen, gods punishing us for our actions, or the crossing of a path once struck by lightning. Even now it is a world populated with the invisible: microbes, bacteria, and viruses. We haven't changed all that much in the very great passage of time. With all our medical discoveries, we are still, like the clay woman, coming apart and breaking.
dread unknown of death. And we have placed everything possible in its path, incantations, prayers, and pleadings. People have consumed heavy metals, used barbers or leeches to bleed them. They have even written on paper and swallowed it, hoping words taken into the body might be an antidote.
sulfurs of the past to heal them. Now we look toward injections, pills, surgery, adjustments, even changes in thinking. In this country, we have even tried to make the elderly disappear from our sight. We've hoped, by song or belief, to save ourselves from what can happen to a human body, even from witnessing it.
we find a story, tell it well, it will contain a thread out of the dark human labyrinth into light and wholeness. And if we can trace its origins, we think there is a way to reach healing. But when the world itself is sick, there are no stories and there is no place to retreat. This is a world with a new order of disease. Even the ocean, considered life-giving, is no longer healthy.
shining ocean. It is not insignificant that we are Native women, because history lives cell-deep within us. And as we talked we added history to the list of causes of illness. The split of cultures has come to dwell in our skin.
that day we first met and visited. In the museum shop, where the clay woman was displayed, we discovered of each other that we both were born "back in the olden days." We remembered an older way of life, one before cars, days with horses and wagons. The way my Chickasaw grandparents lived in Oklahoma when I was a child was the same way Georgianna's family lived about that same time. The fifties and sixties for indigenous people were like the early 1900s for the new Americans. I think of this now, this connection to another time and what it has meant to our lives to feel ourselves so newly come to the modern world, and how comforting it has been for me to have someone other than my sister and cousins to share this with. We have been so shaped by our lives in a different, earlier America, as if we are not fully of this time.
rich. For me, as a young person in Oklahoma with my grandparents, the nights with fireflies, the sound of the hones greeting each other, their heavy feet on earth, was the best of life. Our grandma, who'd never cut her hair in all her life, cooked Chickasaw pashofa, a food something like hominy, in a large black kettle on the woodstove. Some hot nights we made ice cream in a hand-crank machine using salt, cream, vanilla, and ice we bought from the icehouse in Ardmore, Oklahoma. Afterwards we children all chased each other with ice, to put it down the shirts and blouses of our cousins.
age. It became my life, my identity as a woman. I was a solitary, unhappy child in other places and ways, but not in Oklahoma, where my grandfather paid us to be quiet. "Dimes," I once said, and another woman said, "Your granddaddy was rich. We only got nickels." All I know is that my life has never fully existed in the other, mainstream, America. There is a larger sphere of our context to be taken into consideration. It is in the America that reveres the land, that is attached, like the clay woman, to where we dwell. Georgianna and I are from the America of other, first, people. Like the broken woman who watches over the injured world, we are connected to the land.
AND SO, SITTING together on the edge of water and sand, we told each other our stories, Georgianna and I. Not only were words bridges of affinity between us, but in our offering of words it seemed something was born. A spoken story is larger than one unheard, unsaid. In nearly all creation accounts, words or songs are how the world was created, the animals sung into existence. Why should it be different for human lives? We are, as Kiowa writer N. Scott Momaday said, made of words.
IN MY LIFE I've listened, sometimes without deep enough attention, to people talk about illness, their aches, pains, and failing bodies. From the age of fifteen, I worked full-time. My first jobs were in nursing homes. In my mind's eye, I can still see many of the patients. There was Stella, a white woman with long, braided hair. Her room was at the end of a dark hall by an exit sign. I remember her as lively. She exercised every day. There was another woman who spoke only about her long-gone man, Banks. There was Billie the cowboy who always wanted me to put the children to bed and come back. In a room by the front entry was a woman who called me Mary, and out of sympathy I pretended to be this Mary; it made her happy. Next to her was a white-haired woman who had been a judge, and next to her was an Apache woman who had been in a car accident and wore a full body cast. There was a woman whose son had drowned. She died of liver damage caused by years of drinking her grief. And then there was another woman whose face and body I still see. Her white hair had bangs. She was in great pain, but she was a Christian Scientist and didn't believe in medication. She would cry "Dear God," over and over, until finally she consented to taking pain medication, and then she'd feel she had failed.
of other people, I was young and vital, thriving. I had not enough understanding of the ill. I cared for them, but from the distance of youth, my own body was shielded from pain. Nor did I understand memory.
woman called me Mary. Short-term memory gives way to long-term and it is the far past that is most present. Things pass before people's minds as they age, old memories overlie the new. My father relates this story: He was a young orderly, new to the army, taking care of a general who had broken a strike of miners and sent them away in railroad cars. He saw, over and over, the hand of a girl caught in the door. He called out, in his last days, "Open the door," and then a door opened and he saw, at his own ending, his sin, that of closing strikers into a railroad car. Then the door closed.
Watching Over the Sea
RACHEL CARSON WAS a woman who watched over the world. She called the shore, where Georgianna and I sat, a place of compromises, conflicts, and eternal change. The shore is a place of endings and beginnings, of constant movement and change. In the ocean's fathomless depths is the roughness that takes mountains down into grains of sand, the dead into nothing, or almost so. The ocean swallows a beach one year and returns it another.
infant fish float in the clear sheltering sacs of their eggs, an eye visible, a curved fin, spine, the beating hearts we humans share, afloat, moving into these bodies like shells taken up by hermit crabs, the very precious being of all our bodies.
plants in the water reach above the surface now and then. There are colonies of plants, underworld forests bending with currents and tides, animals grown from single cells. Milk-blue squid have descended, waiting for night when they will rise to the surface. All this, in two parts hydrogen, one part oxygen, such simple components, but unable to be duplicated in any lab.
us it was large, a determining, shaping factor in our lives.
We walked barefoot at water's edge, the sand warm and soft. The rockweeds had washed up, succulent thick strands and bulbs of copper light, alive on white sand. Their weight shelters forms of life hidden beneath them, waiting for the next tide to take them back. At this marginal world there is a kind of peace between different and opposing elements. I want to learn it.
AS WE WALKED barefoot beyond the place of smoothed lava stones, we spotted the loon, still and quiet, a sitting island nestled in a sea of sand. As we neared it, its stillness was a hold in time that said something was wrong. The red-eyed loon sat, breath raising and lowering its body, as if resigned to death. Having been around illness and death, I recognized the sinking appearance of its body, as if it were subject to more gravity than the healthy, the weight and skin drawn toward earth. The loon did not protest when I slipped my hand beneath it and felt the sludge, and the smell of oil, thick and black, stuck to his feathers. The bird was between places, stopped in its migration, and also between life and death.
brought him here through light, the magnetic pull of earth, and ancestral knowings? The loon's government of ancient ways, from its body alone, said, "Take to air, to another sea. Leave tundra and winter." It flew to places of earth between cold and warmth. Even then as it sat, its blood, its bones, were telling it to go, and yet it could not.
light even though its weight had settled. In patches around the loon, the beach, too, was black with what had washed in from the spills. Its fate was interwoven with our own human fates in this world we humans have diminished because we have failed to understand how each thing connects with all the rest.
WE CARRIED THE loon to a trailer set up at the beach, but the young man who worked there was getting off work. There was nothing he could do, he said, as he locked the door and left. Maybe he was young, maybe heartless, or perhaps he'd already seen such devastation that he no longer noticed or cared about a single bird. In any case, our choices were few. We could leave the loon, or we could search for a veterinarian who knew about wild birds and oil spills.
to the home of Georgianna's sister, who lived nearby. From there, we called a wildlife officer. After many calls, we finally located a rehabilitator who knew what to do. I left a message. Then there was the long waiting for her to return our call. While we waited, I worried about the fumes being toxic for the bird. Also, I was incompetent here, a land person, having never been close to oil slicks and ocean.
adaptations of form that contain the life, the blueprint of his bones that knew to be hollow, to shape themselves in their way, the magnificent body grown from an egg, the feet that cannot walk on land, the fine, meticulous formation of black and white feathers.
When I lived in the north, I heard the cries of the loon rising easily and quickly up an octave, down again. Like the voice of the wolf. Their cries made me think that they listened to each other.
AS WE WAITED for the call, Georgianna's sister returned home from a surgery and lay on the couch. We visited with her while waiting for the phone call, leaving the bird in a box on the kitchen table. Soon their mother came inside and joined us. She is a beautiful Papago woman. She sat in her chair at the end of the table, wearing a white blouse, gathered at the neck, her black-and-gray hair back from her face and soft.
GEORGIANNA'S FATHER IS Chumash. I met him and her mother on that earlier trip to California where I bought the clay woman. He was quite elderly now. The back door opened and he came in, a man grown small with age, gentleness a part of his face, hands, body. A man from the old villages along the sea, the ones that had been dislocated by gold-seekers and priests and then by overlarge cities and developments. He was an indigenous artist, a traditional shell-worker and a carver whose works are in museums. "I fell down," he said, and he went on to say that he had slipped outside and that his back, which had been painful, was much the better for the fall. "It's a funny thing," he said, touching his shoulder. Georgianna's mother began to cry. Tears were the work of the heart at this moment. The pain and sorrow were not only about the man falling to the ground of space and time and history, not only about her daughter on the couch. It was not only the loon, but that the bird and its history held resonances of all these other things. It touched on other worlds and even the historical past, the way we, as Indian people, were not intended to survive.
FOR MYSELF, BEING one of those people who survived, my tribal identity has always been chasing after me, to keep its claims on my body and heart. I can't escape and be whole and real. As if I am the lung and it is the air breathing me in and out like waves of the ocean, rhythms and cycles of wind. It is the blood; I'm just the container. It is the ocean. It carries me and I float. It is something Native people can never explain to those who don't know it, and I have given up trying to do so. As with life, as with water, attempts to explain it slip through fingers and minds. I only know that the heart and the mind are created by culture, past and present. And probably so is the spirit, though I'd like to think it was not so, because I'd like to think that there is a consciousness of the value of life inherent in all people. I've concluded over the years that the two ways, Native and European, are almost impossible to intertwine, that they are parallel worlds taking place at the same time, bridges only sometimes made, allowing for a meeting place of lives.
share at the deepest levels of ourselves, and it is a living, present thing. It is there in the dreaming, in a voice always at the ear, an old song, the land we come from, but also in the clay and breakings of earth, woman, bird.
help the loon, I thought of all of us in the room, not only the textures of our infirmities, but of what had been stolen from us and broken. There was an intelligence. There were other ways of knowing which included rituals and ceremonies. We had great knowledge of plants, minerals, and medicines. American Indians who'd survived tens of thousands of years witnessed the great destruction of our knowledge systems, which included knowledge of ecosystems. All of us in that room knew that western medicine, even with its best powers, could not heal us, perhaps not even the delicate loon, whose song was beautiful and haunting.
in our place, in the world. Every one of us knew it, and we knew, too, that we were powerless, the loon and all of us waiting for the ring of the phone without which we would be even more lost. And I think, What kind of people would we have been if we had walked on? What then would be our own creaturehood? What then could we have called ourselves?
THE HOUSEHOLD SOON filled up with grandchildren and great-grandchildren. I moved the loon to a back bedroom, because working with wildlife, I've seen birds die merely from stress. The loon was silent and still, there in the house of what might have, at other times, been his enemies.
shoes, carrying food, and carrying a beloved new baby who soon found herself in the loving arms of her grandmother. I admired the baby, a being of the future. The baby had two extra fingers on each hand, so beautiful and perfect and useful, but fingers that would mark her as different, and because of that, however perfect they were, they might be removed to keep her from the trauma of difference. And I thought of the Navajo uranium miners, how they grew extra fingers, sometimes from an arm or elbow. Their bodies changed and mutated in one short lifetime, their own. Their pictures were carried about this country by their widows, who traveled a decade or more ago, hoping for, asking for, justice, which was never forthcoming. Even when they won their lawsuit they were never paid.
FINALLY, THE PHONE rang. It was the call we'd been waiting for. It put us in action. Georgianna, the bird, and I drove to a suburb where the woman who took care of the loons lived. She said we should have placed the bird in cloth. So easy and clear, I was embarrassed not to have thought of it.
I THINK OF that day now. It was a day of meetings, the coming together of water and land, the bridged distances of private worlds and histories. Bird. Friends. Tribes. Something had been righted by this accidental pilgrimage and these incomplete journeys.
healing, as woman to land, as bird to water. We are together in this, all of us, and it's our job to love each other, human, animal, and land, the way ocean loves shore, and shore loves and needs the ocean, even if they are different elements.
Saved the Loon. I tell this not to make myself look good, but to reveal our values. This is what we love about our elders, that they honor us when we care, not when we win, but when we look after the earth and show compassion. In truth, I can say that I was also as broken as the Bruja Who Watched Over the World, as damaged as the loon.
died. He was greatly missed by his loving family. His words at his passage were "Oh what a beautiful light to do shell work by."
Excerpted from THE WOMAN WHO WATCHES OVER THE WORLD by LINDA HOGAN. Copyright © 2001 by Linda Hogan. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
What People are Saying About This
(Leslie Marmon Silko, author of Ceremony)
Meet the Author
Linda Hogan was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for her novel Mean Spirit. Her other honors include an American Book Award and a Guggenheim Fellowship. She lives in Tishomingo, Oklahoma.
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